Resignation of Joel Fitzgibbon as Minister for Defence

The Australia Defence Association is sorry to see Joel Fitzgibbon resign as the Minister for Defence. This is preliminary comment and we will be discussing this matter further in our forthcoming publications. A longer analysis of the background to this resignation may be read in the earlier comment below.

After assuming the shadow portfolio responsibility as somewhat of a surprise choice in late 2006, and then the actual portfolio after the election in late 2007, Joel Fitzgibbon developed into quite an effective minister.

He was particularly good at pressuring NATO to treat Australia as a real partner in the allied effort in Afghanistan. He enjoyed amiable and effective relationships with his counterparts among our principal allies. 

His personal resolve and courage were demonstrated when he insisted on visiting various aid projects in the field when last visiting the Australian contingent in Oruzgan province, rather than just tour established (and relatively secure) bases. On a personal level, he related well to the men and women of our defence force. 

Although his relationships with the department and the ADF hierarchy were at times uneasy (discussed in previous comment here), he was as effective a minister as the current ministerial structure, and party-political temperament, allow.

His frustrations and difficulties with the department and the defence force are inherent in the structure and were essentially no worse than those of all recent ministers. To some degree they were also self-inflicted or exacerbated anyway (also discussed below).

The bottom line involved here is that this large and complex portfolio is now beyond effective supervision by any one minister and the overall level of its ministerial supervision needs to be modernised and increased if any real reform of the department is to succeed. 

We do not believe that Joel Fitzgibbon was undermined by elements of the Department of Defence or the defence force as some media reports have alleged. This resignation principally resulted from personal oversights, ministerial staff mistakes and perhaps intra-party political machinations, not from some form of bureaucratic conspiracy. He has certainly been long targeted by the parliamentary Opposition in its search for their first Rudd Cabinet scalp. 

In appointing a new Minister for Defence, the Prime Minister should address the needs of effective long-term governance as well as the politics and Cabinet balance involved.

He should also take the opportunity to assist the new senior portfolio minister by also appointing a second full-time junior minister to increase effective supervision of this large and complex portfolio — with one junior minister overseeing the DSTO and DMO and the other overseeing the ADF not just its personnel issues (or DVA).

The PM should also redress the recent decision to strip one and a half of the two parliamentary secretaries from the defence portfolio in order to reinforce Minister Wong politically. This has come at considerable and increasing cost to proper portfolio governance. 

It takes any new minister a long time to understand and grasp the defence portfolio. Some never manage it.

Even when others do, the time involved causes numerous delays and real-world problems for ADF operations and supporting capability development decision-making. This is especially so when the ADF is committed to combat operations.

We are sorry to see Joel Fitzgibbon go and wish his replacement well for his or her daunting, and short-notice, task.